A tour through Italy with Blaeu's town maps

Atlases at the KNIR Library

People who are interested in old city maps, can take pleasure in browsing through KNIR's cartography collection. This library contains some of the most splendid atlases, like Braun and Hogenberg's famous Civitates Orbis Terrarum from 1574, which is the largest compilation of town maps and illustrations ever published. Another old map one can admire at the KNIR library, is the Coup d'œil général sur la France by Brion de la Tour from 1765, containing several maps of ancient and contemporary France. Being situated in Rome, the KNIR unsurprisingly possesses maps of Italy as well. A beautiful example of a town map is A new mapp of Rome shewing its antient and present scituation from 1721 by John Senex. Italy as a whole is represented at the KNIR library by Blaeu's Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van geheel Italië [The new town atlas of entire Italy], from 1704-1705, which is a work in four parts presenting maps of a large number of towns and illustrations of monuments and buildings in Italy. This last mentioned atlas by Blaeu is of special interest here, since it is published by a Dutch cartographer for a Dutch public and therefore embodies the historical bonds between Italy and the Netherlands.

The firm Blaeu
Since the beginning of the 16th century, European publishers and booksellers found a new and lucrative market in the production and sale of maps. By the end of the century, one could come across maps in books or wall maps in many households. Proof of this can be found on the background of De soldaat en het lachende meisje [Officer and Laughing Girl], a painting by Vermeer from 1657, where Blaeu's map of Holland and West-Friesland is used as wall decoration.

Johannes Vermeer. De soldaat en het lachende meisje. 1657. Oil on canvas. The Frick Collection, New York.
In the 17th century, thanks to its primary position in the world trade and in the production of books, the city of Amsterdam was able to position itself as the center of the European cartography. Within this field, three generations of Blaeu cartographers occupied a leading role. The family business was first started by the Amsterdam based Willem Blaeu. From his company at the Korte Nieuwendijk, which he bought in 1598 or 1599, he sold globes, maps and some literature, like poetry from his good friend Joost van denVondel. At first, Blaeu was not interested in maps of countries and cities, as his focus lay on the sea, probably because of the increased overseas trade. In addition to the sea maps, one could also buy nautical and astronomical instruments at Blaeu's firm.

As the popularity of maps increased, Blaeu might have spotted a hole in the market. From 1605 on, he started producing and selling land and town maps alongside his sea maps. At that time, the firm had moved to the Damrak, where multiple cartographers were situated. His next door neighbours, Jacob Aertsz. and Johannes Janssonius, became his biggest rivals, as they all wanted to sell their goods. As often is the case, this competition led to the printing of very luxurious and expensive editions, and they kept on trying to outdo each other. Apparently, originality was not much of a criterion at that time. Blaeu's first atlas, published in 1630, namely contained maps which he copied from one of his competitors. The desire to publish was seemingly bigger than the desire to provide the buyers accurate maps.

The culmination of all this rivalry was the Atlas Maior, published by Blaeu in 1662. This collection consisted of eleven huge folios, and contained some 600 maps in total. The engravings are also remarkable and worth studying, especially when we consider that they were all coloured by hand. The production of this immense work was made possible through the expansion of the company. Already in the 1620's, Willems son Joan started to work at the firm alongside his father. After the latters death in 1638, Joan took over the company after his father and continued its production until the year of 1672. This Catastrophic Year in Dutch history also turned out to be catastrophic for the Blaeu business. In that year, due to a fire, their printing office, including all maps, presses and books, was completely burned down. The business never fully recovered from the blow and ceased to exist shortly after.

The Blaeu Press
In 1637, the firm had moved to the Bloemgracht, were there reportedly were nine flatbed presses, six intaglio presses and a type foundry. Blaeu didn't make paper, but bought large quantities from a paper mill where they made good-quality sheets. The flatbed presses were probably made by Willem Blaeu himself, as he in the beginning of the 17th century developed a new printing press which was better to work with. Earlier, Blaeu had worked with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe for a couple of months and learned how to make new astronomical and nautical instruments. This technical experience made him the right person to make modifications to the press. The essence of this new press was a counterweight that made the platen rise automatically. He also made the press heavier, so that the platen would spread pressure evenly and make a more even impression. All in all, printing became easier, better and faster. It is likely that these developments led to a speed of one printed sheet every twenty seconds, which means that workmen could produce some 2500 sheets a day, as their working days lasted twelve to sixteen hours.

Only the French continued to use their own Lyons presses, but in the rest of Europe, the Blaeu press became quite popular from 1620 on. Apparently, this press was so high-tech and of such good quality, that it remained unaltered for almost 300 years.

Interior of a paper mill at Fabriano, a city famous for its high-quality paper. On the right, we can see the trip-hammers that pound the pulp; in the middle, a man is screening the beaten pulp through a sieve; on the left, we see the newly formed sheets being pressed and dried.

Blaeu's and Mortier's town maps of Italy
In 1663, three volumes of town maps of Italy were printed at the Bloemgracht, called Theatrum civitatum et admirandorum Italiæ, which covered the Papal States, Rome, and the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Joans intention was to publish ten volumes in total on Italian cities and the monuments in Rome, but he never got round to this plan. The volumes consisted of maps and copper engravings of townscapes, monuments and landscapes. These engravings were made by some of the best engravers of Amsterdam, such as Romein de Hooghe (1645-1708) and Jan Luyken (1649-1712). The originals were printed in Latin, but a Dutch and French edition, printed by Adriaan Moetjens in The Hague, followed in the next decades. In 1682, Joans sons published two other volumes that covered Piemonte and Savoy.

A couple of decades later, the Amsterdam based printer and publisher Pieter Mortier laid his hands on most of Blaeu's copper plates with illustrations from the town maps. Mortier then compiled a whole new atlas in four parts, called Het Nieuw Stede Boek van geheel Italie, printed in 1704-1705. This edition, present in the collection of the KNIR Library, starts with an introduction by Mortier, where it becomes clear that he builds on Blaeu's atlas and tries to improve it. Especially in his volume on Rome, Mortier has a different approach than Blaeu. While the latter focused solely on ancient Rome, the former includes contemporary Rome as well, making the city more recognizable for travelers who consulted the atlas. Other than Blaeu's atlases, which were only published in Latin at first, Mortier immediately published his edition of the atlas in three languages, namely Dutch, French and Latin, creating a large area of distribution for his goods.

Besides from the expansion from three to four parts, which now consisted of Northern Italy, the Papal States, the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily and finally Rome, Mortier also retouched many of the engravings and put his name on most of them. He created new engravings himself as well. While most of the engravings are remarkably splendid, they may be less striking than those in Blaeu's originals, since they were hand-coloured and Mortier's are monochrome. Nevertheless, Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van geheel Italie is very appealing to the eye. The books are very well structured, making them easy to use. Every volume begins with a general description of the area and a description of all plates, followed by an index, which was a modern feature at the time. After the index come the plates, which are all numbered, so they can be easily found. The first volume also contains an introduction and a table which converts Italian measures to Dutch. Another aspect which contributes to the readability, is the magnificent typography. The descriptions, containing a fair amount of text, are divided into two columns, while each section has its own headline. Moreover, each page has a page number and a header on the top of the page. The busy reader could also make use of the printed notes in the margins, which contain several key words that give a quick indication of the contents.

Stories on the foreground
Almost as interesting as the maps as a whole, are the scenes on the foreground of every illustration. At first glance, they do not seem to be related to the maps, but are rather added randomly to fill up and enrich the borders. However, in some cases the scenery can be read as some sort of itinerary. We often encounter travelers by foot, horse, boat or carriage being shown the way by local citizens, often farmers. They then point at the city depicted on the map. These scenes show how the books should be used, namely as a travel guide. By the end of volume four, the engraving of St. Peter's Basilica shows a group getting a guided tour through the building, and the illustration of the Forum Romanum depicts tourists examining the monuments, pointing to them and discussing them.

A guided tour through St. Peter's Basilica, Rome.
People chatting and looking at ruins at the Campo Vaccino (Forum Romanum), Rome.

The scenes can also be related to the city presented in another way, namely historical or cultural. The map of Pavia for example, contains a battle between two camps, depicting the Battle of Pavia in 1525. Also the naval Battle of Orbetello in 1646 is presented on that city's map, giving the reader a little education on the history of the city. Through the foreground scenes, one could also learn something about the area and local uses, like the paper mill at Fabriano or the almond tree at Terracina. Fabriano was and is famous for its excellent paper, while Terracina grew a lot of almond trees.

Almond picking at Terracina.

Although the maps may be outdated by now, these scenes are one of the reasons why Blaeu's town atlas could and should still be admired. It's no wonder that the KNIR Library is proud to have these unique objects in its collection, willing to show them to any interested visitor. M.I. Landheer

Joan Blaeu [Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van geheel Italie] Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van Italie, ofte naauwkeurige beschryving van allen deszelfs steden, paleyzen, kerken, &c. Nevens de Land-Kaarten van alle deszelfs Provincien. (imp. 'T Amsterdam. Door den Arbeid van Pieter Mortier, Boekverkooper. M D C C IV-V. Met Privilegie.).
4 parts in 3 Volumes:
I: Het Eerste Deel. Inhoudende, Lombardye, te weeten, de Republyk van Genua. De Hertogdommen van Milane, Parma, Modena, en Mantua. De Republyk van Venetie, Luka, En het Groot Hertogdom van Toskane.
2°, [4] - 22 – [78 engravings]
II: Het Tweede Deel. Inhoudende, den Kerkelyken Staat.
2°, 14 – [75 engravings]
III: Het Derde Deel. Inhoudende, het Koninkrijk van Napels en van Sicilie.
2°, 12 – [37 engravings]
IV: Het Vierde Deel. Inhoudende, De Amphitheaters, Theaters, Schouwburge, Zegenboogen, Tempels, Piramide, Graafstede, Obeliscus, Kerken, Paleizen, &c.
2°, 17 – [79 engravings]
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, DR140 - 142

Febvre, Lucien and Henri-Jean Martin. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800.
         Trans. David Gerard. London: NLB, 1976.
Haitsma Mulier, E.O.G. "De eerste Hollandse stadsbeschrijvingen uit de zeventiende eeuw." De
         Zeventiende Eeuw 9 (1993): 97-111.
Keuning, J. Willem Jansz. Blaeu: A Biography and History of His Work as a Cartographer and
         Publisher. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1973.
Koeman, Cornelis. "Life and Works of Willem Janszoon Blaeu. New Contributions to the Study of
         Blaeu, Made During the Last Hundred Years." Imago Mundi 26 (1972): 9-16.
Moorman, Gloria. "Discovering Rome through Joan Blaeu's Admiranda Urbis Romae: The Creation
          of the Town Atlas of Rome (Amsterdam, 1663) in the Light of Italian-Dutch Relationships in
          the Seventeenth Century." MA thesis. Leiden: University of Leiden, 2014.
Thoren, Victor E. and John Robert Christianson. The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho
          Brahe. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome